As the government shutdown grinds into its third week, veterans benefits will draw the spotlight Tuesday in what could be the biggest protest yet aimed at pressing Congress and President Obama to solve the political impasse.
The Military Coalition, a group of 33 veterans and military organizations, is planning a rally at the National World War II Memorial on Tuesday morning. The groups want to publicize the impact the shutdown is having on many vets and their families amid concerns of delayed disability pay, GI Bill education stipends and other benefits.
The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars are among groups that will be represented. Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion's Economic Division, will be among speakers emphasizing the impact on employment and training.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned last week that financing vet benefits could become difficult if the impasse continues. Compensation checks to 5.1 million veterans won't be issued Nov. 1; 433,000 fully disabled veterans might not receive payments; and 360,000 surviving spouses and children of wartime veterans may stop getting VA money, Shinseki told a congressional oversight committee.
VA tuition and stipend payments to more than 500,000 veterans and spouses enrolled in college also are threatened. The VA has furloughed nearly 8,000 employees, he said.
Ryan Lamke, an Iraq War veteran diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, works with the Armed Forces Foundation. The foundation is not part of The Military Coalition, but Lamke is fully aware of the problems facing returning vets.
Lamke notes that the unemployment rate for veterans exceeds 20% in some areas. Some vets are battling disabilities that make them unemployable. Some rely on housing stipends while they attend school on the G.I. Bill.
"You are talking about making it difficult for some veterans and their families to pay their most basic bills," he said.
Lamke said the impact that lost compensation and benefits will have on some vets could be life or death. "The suicide rates of veterans is already high," he said. "Now you are adding more stress. You may be pushing some people to the unthinkable."
The protest comes on the heels of a spate of protests Sunday that included a raucous effort at the WWII Memorial. A crowd converged on the National Mall, pushing through barriers to protest the memorial's closing. Some of the barriers were carried to the White House and dropped at the fence there.
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were among those who gathered Sunday morning, along with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
"Tear down these walls," the crowd chanted. Protesters sang God Bless America and other patriotic songs as they entered the memorial plaza.
The memorial has become a political symbol in the battle between Democrats and Republicans over who is at fault since the shutdown began Oct. 1. Earlier rallies have focused on allowing access for World War II veterans visiting from across the country with the Honor Flight Network.
Contributing: Associated Press